After we have navigated through all of the planning, traveling, gift exchanging, food prepping, eating and parties that we go through to celebrate Christmas, we might take pause and ask ourselves what this commercialized holiday really is all about.

The answer usually starts with the peaceful nativity scene from the Gospel of Luke and the theological claim that Immanuel (God with us) came into our world in a particular story that was messy and complicated, and very vulnerable to say the least. This story could be shrouded in shame as Mary and Joseph are engaged but not married, and Joseph is not the father of this child. It is courageous of Mary to say yes to the angel, and courageous of her relative Elizabeth (the wife of a priest) to bless Mary and the child in her womb. It is no small thing that Joseph is still there with Mary to take her as his wife and to take the child on as his own. Perhaps the first Christmas miracle is that they are there together with a healthy baby, born in a manger.

It would be great to stop at this scene and leave it as a feel-good story of blessings and peace for this holy family, and perhaps for ourselves. However, the story is not peaceful at all. Each year after Christmas we are called to remember the Gospel of Matthew account of the Magi from the East who come to Jerusalem following a star to pay homage to the newborn king. We remember that the Jewish world was ruled by the Roman Empire appointed King Herod the Great. Herod is threatened by this new “king” and sets out to kill the child by ordering the death of all infants two years old and under in the town of Bethlehem. Joseph, tipped off by a dream, takes his family and flees to Egypt by night where they hide out until King Herod dies himself.

This is a highly disturbing story that sets the backdrop and tone for the rest of the story. There is painful irony in the fact that a Jewish family had to flee to Egypt as refugees to avoid infanticide when that is exactly how the Jewish people were able to flee from Egyptian tyranny during the Exodus generations before. What it was like to be Jewish refugees in Egypt? Who were the people that took them in and kept them safe?

These stories set the backdrop for Jesus’ life and ministry. We know that he lived in a community that was marked by war, tyranny, suffering, animosity and mistrust of many “others” around them, calls for revenge and even calls for more war. It is in this backdrop and climate that he proclaims a new vision and way of being together called the “Kingdom of God” and invites everyone to live with deep compassion for each other. This “way” calls us to care for the sick, feed the hungry, console those who weep and love our neighbors as ourselves, especially the ones we are afraid of or can’t stand.

The one called Immanuel is still with us, and even today calls us to a life of compassion and love for all people and all life. In a world that is deeply divided and keeps tearing apart it is a courageous vision for us to follow. Perhaps it is here that this Christmas story comes alive and is one that we can all take to heart.

Rev. John Lund is an ELCA pastor and director of Emmaus Campus Ministry at the University of Montana in Missoula.  He can be reached at John.lund@mso.umt.edu.

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